By Jeremy Ray Jewell
Mexico City settles on Columbus’ s replacement, but finds that removal and substitution is agonizing in a society which hasn’t changed all that much.
The gritos de independencia, or cries of independence, were heard around Mexico at midnight to mark Independence Day on September 16. The cries reenact the rebellion associated with Miguel Hidalgo, a white Spanish priest who led Indigenous peasants against Spanish rule. All of the statues erected in his memory, like his grito, have done little to break the chains of this country’s troubled history. Case in point: just as yells were celebrating the holiday, heated voices could also be heard debating Mexico City’s controversial decision to replace a different historical figure: Christopher Columbus.
The city government removed a statue of Columbus on its Paseo de la Reforma last year and announced a couple of months ago that they planned to replace Columbus with a statue by artist Pedro Reyes. The proposed piece, rejected after considerable criticism, depicted the stylized head of an Indigenous woman. It was to be titled Tlalli, meaning “Land” in Nahuatl. This news came within a week of when Richmond, VA, the former capital of the Confederacy, removed their hotly contested Robert E. Lee statue. So it is only natural for us gringos, with our freshly bare pedestals, to take note of the issues facing our neighbors to the south as they try to replace a discarded icon.
Reyes’s piece was at first described as an Olmec colossal head. It was being marketed as “the first female” head, coming some three millennia after the Olmec civilization also produced theirs from volcanic rock, the same proposed medium for Tlalli. Both city and artist backpedaled on these claims, although it was too late to quell the backlash. It was a daring assertion that the work expressed Indigenous history, given that the artist is a “whitexican” as well as the recipient of extensive US accolades. Reyes’s work has been featured at the Guggenheim, and recognized by the US Department of State and the Ford Foundation. He has also been a visiting artist and lecturer at MIT, and has had a monograph published in Harvard’s “Focus on Latin American Art and Agency” series.
The controversy raised a number of uncomfortable questions about art and historical memory in public commemorations. The criticisms of Tlalli fell into a few camps. There are Columbus defenders. There are also critiques, from both sides, questioning the politics of pandering via symbolic gestures. This skepticism focused on how the removal and the replacement were going to take place under the oversight of president “AMLO” Obrador’s populist Morena party, to which Mexico City’s mayor also belongs. There were also aesthetic reservations about the way Reyes depicted the woman. One supporter of the conservative PAN party on Twitter called Tlalli the “Indian María Version 4T” —the “Indian María” referring to the low position of female Indigenous domestic workers, and “4T” referring to AMLO’s alleged “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico. As another Twitter user asks, in reference to the pseudo-historic Ancient Aliens program, “So yes? The pre-Hispanic inhabitants of America made contact with extraterrestrials?” Other commenters charge that the face closely resembles the exoticized European visions of Indigenous people. And there are those who charged that Tlalli looked like a Buddha.
The intersection of the symbolic and aesthetic called forth other disturbing voices. Some recalled Mexico’s long, troubled history of using Indigenous people and their symbols to represent a nation that often neglects or abuses them. The long-standing ideological paradigm of mestizaje promotes an egalitarian ideal of racial mixing while reflecting an impetus felt exclusively by darker-skinned and Indigenous peoples to “better the race” through “whitening,” both culturally and biologically. There is also a perspective that sees the Indigenous as an artisan or anthropological subject, suitable only for preserving the non-European curiosities of the land.
What united most of these criticisms, to be frank, was the fact that only an artist such as Reyes was seen as suitable for the job. That is, even if he was not Indigenous, even if he was a white man, what mattered was that he had international acclaim. Not Mexican acclaim, per se. There were numerous Indigenous female artists, acclaimed internationally, who apparently were not even seriously considered. Figures such as Juana Gómez Ramírez of Amatenango, Chiapas. But an artist such as her, it seems, had the wrong kind of international acclaim. After all, she hadn’t been crowned by Harvard as representing “Latin American Art and Agency.”
Finally, this month, Mexico City decided to replace Columbus with a reproduction of La Joven de Amajac (The Young Woman of Amajac), a pre-Hispanic piece from Veracruz on display in the National Museum of Anthropology. The choice has its issues, but they are familiar stumbling blocks for public art. It is expressed best in the expression “dead Indians,” inspired by the American aphorism “the only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Today the term is also used to describe how historical memorialization is about sanitizing the past. So, to recap: A contemporary Indigenous woman artist is too unsophisticated and provincial, a white man elevated by Mexican and American institutions is too ironic and elitist, but an archaeological artifact of an Indigenous woman is right on-message for the Latin American capital. This recalls Octavio Paz’s criticism of the National Anthropology Museum’s Aztec-esque design, which he equated with an effort to create a national temple of the Indigenous past (and to disregard the realities of the present).
The problem is that discussions about commemoration do not address the connection between Indigenous people and the nation in the present. Unless there is substantial debate about why that connection is so important in the first place we will be unable to find the right symbolic gestures, let alone change realities. Significant options? Promoting Indigenous artists is an obvious one. There could also be depictions of historical figures representing Indigenous agency. They could be leaders of the Indigenous revolts, which are barely spoken about, even now. Perhaps Jacinto Canek, Mayan resistor to Spanish dominance in the 18th-century Caste War of Yucatán, a historical Indigenous person with agency and autonomy. Which should give us reason to pause: What will replace Robert E. Lee in Richmond? A Bantu mask named “Slave” in Swahili? Black musicians and athletes? Or maybe Nat Turner? Perhaps a question that’s more to the immediate point: Who will be chosen to sculpt our past?
Jeremy Ray Jewell hails from Jacksonville, FL. He has an MA in history of ideas from Birkbeck College, University of London, and a BA in philosophy from the University of Massachusetts Boston. His website is www.jeremyrayjewell.com.